Fight over Radon in Granite Countertops Heats Up

May 14, 2008


Please visit an updated post on radon in granite countertops here:  A Rational Discussion on Radon in Granite Countertops

The Marble Institute of America better get ready for another round of fighting because the issue of radon in granite countertops is back. For the past decade, the MIA has been trying, with much success, to squash the rumor that granite countertops have the potential to add dangerous amounts of radon in the home. A new study being conducted by Houston area not-for-profit BuildClean is raising old fears about the dangers of granite countertops, and its preliminary results show that while most granite countertops in the study contain very little to no radon at all, the countertops that do contain radon have levels that are frighteningly high. While consumers can be secure in the fact that the vast majority of granite is perfectly safe, a small percentage is still in question, and no independent scientific study exists to assuage consumer fears.

The first issue of Solid Surface in 1995 explored the possibility that granite countertops may pose a health risk. Soon, the MIA issued their response, which attacked the credibility of the science involved in the study as well as the fact that the advertisers in the journal included companies that competed with granite countertop manufacturers. But one phrase in the response, a highlighted phrase no less, is troubling: “…actual levels of radon gas emmissions are so low as to be insignificant and generally represent no threat.” As a father, I don’t want to be assured that there is “generally” no threat to my family. I want to know there is no threat. And after BuildClean* found that 3 of 95 granite countertops contained harmful amounts of radon, would the MIA consider such a small number to be “generally” no threat? I’m sure the owners of those three countertops are not reassured.

(*Correction: BuildClean did not find that 3 of 95 countertops contained harmful amounts of radon. Rather, the results are from a study by Dr. William Llope, a Rice University Physicist, who is not associated with either BuildClean or the MIA. His comments can be found on the third page of comments below.)

Look around for information on radon in granite and you will find many sites telling you the “truth” or uncovering “myths” about radon. Since many of the statistics cited are the same, it’s clear that much of the information comes from the MIA response linked above or from an updated (though with the same references) MIA PDF. My personal favorite was a site titled “Ask an Expert – 9 Myths about Granite” where they claim that “No one today takes credit for starting the rumor, and certainly no one supports it.” No one? They then make the claim that granite actually has healing properties. Most troubling is the fact that, as experts, they don’t seem to know that “lose” is spelled with only one “o.” The most common argument you’ll find, that radon occurs naturally, really needs to be taken out of their playbook. Just because it’s on the periodic table of the elements doesn’t mean I want it in my house. I’m talking to you, Californium.

In late 2007, the MIA scuffled with Home Safety Systems, which sells radon detectors. Like the fight over the original journal article, this seems to be another example of competing companies arguing science, which doesn’t sit right with me. The current BuildClean study is funded in part by Silestone and Cambria, two competitors of granite countertops. (Ironically, Silestone is a sponsor of the “Ask the Experts” article above – their logo is at the bottom of the page.)

So how do we start trusting that granite is safe? An independent study done by the EPA would be a good start. Leave corporate interests out of it. And don’t give us general findings – tell us exactly what was found. Since radon is found naturally in some parts of the earth, the MIA needs to admit that there is a possibility that some granite will contain radon, and then show how they are making sure such slabs do not make their way into our homes. Are granite countertops screened for radon before reaching the consumer? (Maybe the folks over at Home Safety Systems can help the MIA out with that.) Otherwise, without solid assurances, it won’t be long until consumers reject granite outright.

For information on green alternatives to granite, try Green Counter Culture.

Before commenting, please visit our updated post on radon in granite countertops here:  A Rational Discussion on Radon in Granite Countertops